The latest Democratic debate was the most pugilistic yet

8 February 2020

6:24 PM

8 February 2020

6:24 PM

If you’re after a real fight, come to Manchester, New Hampshire on a Friday night. An idyllic Catholic college smothered in snow was the setting for the 895th (I think) Democratic debate, the most pugilistic yet.

It all unfolded in the arena where St Anselm’s College usually play basketball and Biden delivered the first dunk, going after Bernie for not costing out his ambitious Medicare For All proposal.

In the last week, following the Joe Biden campaign has been like watching a 16-year-old Labrador on its last legs: it seemed as if it would be more humane if someone put it out of its misery. Biden has ramped up his efforts in the Granite State since his debilitating display in the Iowa caucuses. The fightback started here, with Uncle Joe swiping at the insurgent Mayor Pete over his inexperience, reeling off his flagship policy achievements and describing what he and Barack Obama got done as ‘just the beginning.’ He showed passion throughout, particularly in the bizarre moment where he berated the studio audience into giving Lt. Col. Vindman a standing ovation. ‘Stand up for Col. Vindman!’ Sure Joe…

Pete Buttigieg, meanwhile, started in pole position after being anointed boy king by the chronically malfunctioning Iowa Democratic party. Democrats throughout this primary season have tried to prompt Obama comparisons by demonstrating their hifalutin blue-sky-thinking. Pete’s recent efforts have been more Beto than Barack: on Thursday he tweeted out a banal quote from his CNN town hall that read: ‘the shape of our democracy is the issue that affects every other issue.’

Those calling for Mayor Cheat’s head on a pike were sorely disappointed: he didn’t implode, answered a foreign policy question well, and ultimately behaved much as usual: as if Aaron Sorkin was off-screen directing him after snorting a finely chopped up line of his own sense of self-importance. ‘Systemic racism has penetrated to every level of our system,’ he said at one point. While explaining why he was a more suitable pick than Joe Biden, Pete stressed ‘now we have to meet this moment.’ But how long will the Buttigieg moment last?

Pete feels like the primary’s Perkin Warbeck, elevated from obscurity and declared monarch by a chorus of malcontents. As far as I can see, there is no solid evidence that he existed before 2017. Was he grown in a Silicon Valley lab with the sole purpose of securing this election? His contemporaries weren’t putting up with the young pretender. Klobuchar was in binder-flinging mode from the get-go, harrying Mayor Pete for his inconsistency over Medicare for All and for saying he found impeachment exhausting. Elizabeth Warren followed her Senate colleague into the Petey pile-on, jabbing the mayor for both his failure to answer Linsey Davis’s question about why black marijuana arrests in South Bend went up during his tenure, and his financial backers, saying of ‘buying’ elections, ‘I don’t think any billionaire should be able to do it, and I don’t think anyone who sucks up to a billionaire should be able to do it.’

Only the Democrats would choose to spend a Friday night in Manchester having a lengthy foreign policy discussion about Soleimani, Iraq and Afghanistan. The segment was a bit limp without Tulsi Gabbard on stage excoriating Hillary Clinton. Tulsi, who didn’t qualify for this contest, was apparently at a town hall in a small city called Somersworth. Mercifully it looks like it finished in time to let everyone start drinking. If only the same could be said for the debate.

Elsewhere, Andrew Yang began the night as politely as possible by shaking every other candidates’ hand. For a last-minute qualifier, you’d have thought he would make more of an effort to up his speaking time by cutting in on the others — perhaps it’s just not his style. Upon his first answer, he received a ‘has not held elected office’ chyron from ABC, an honor not bestowed on Tom Steyer, who also hasn’t held elected office but is richer.

Steyer, who ascended to the debate stage on a staircase built from gold bullion, effectively took the stance of ‘I agree with Bernie, I’m only a little bit of a billionaire, please like me, why can’t we all get along?’ It’s a tale of unrequited love for the ages: the senator who rails against billionaires, and the billionaire who can’t get enough of him. To be fair, Steyer showed a marked improvement on previous performances, by talking to the other candidates rather than staring down the barrel of the camera like a cable-channel hypnotherapist, and attempting to fill Cory Booker’s niche of being the cohort’s peacenik…until he changed tack 20 minutes before the end. At that stage, Steyer tried to corner Joe Biden into disavowing a South Carolina state senator who accused Steyer of buying the support of the head of the Black Caucus there.

Sanders acted like a man more secure in his front-runner status than Pete, spending his allocated time talking about his go-to beats like the disgrace of America being the only major country without a national health service. He only razzed his fellow front-runner once: ‘I don’t have 40 billionaires supporting my campaign, Pete’ In knocking out his greatest hits, Bernie avoided facing any real scrutiny. Arguably he faced a harder question from a stranger at breakfast than George Stephanopoulos and his acolytes offered him all evening.

An hour in, ABC kicked off a section on New Hampshire with a disorienting 360-degree tracking shot of the two moderators. Monica Hernandez of local station WMUR embraced her moment in the spotlight, asking tough questions of Buttigieg on an apparent inconsistency of his drug decriminalization stance and Amy Klobuchar about whether she regretted jailing drug offenders while claiming addiction should be treated as an illness. The interlude was effective — the ABC hosts dialed up the temperature of their questioning when the cameras returned to them.

After the frosty fracas in New England, a couple of these candidates will amble into the woods surrounding St Anselm’s College, never to reemerge. There are, it appears, four debates left before the Democrats settle on the nominee — at least the next one’s in Vegas. And it’s not on a Friday!

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